My grandmother Helga not only inspired this recipe, but she also ignited my love for food and taught me the foundations of cooking with spices, flavors, and textures. Helga made everything from scratch: bread, meatballs, cookies, pickled herring, liver pâté—all the staples of Swedish cuisine. Her versions were rougher, less polished than the ones you might buy, but they were made with a lot of care and spirit. I am not sure where I registered the difference between homemade and store-bought, but her cooking was so unique, and the rustic textures have stuck with me to this day.
Cooking with my grandmother was more than baking cookies; it was about being together, hearing her stories, and contributing to the julbord, the traditional Swedish holiday spread. My sister Linda and I would help with rolling out the dough and would compete to see who could make better shapes. There was always a lot going on at my grandmother’s house: Swedish glögg would be warming on the stove, a ham would be either boiling or curing, and my grandfather would be listening to the radio. Cooking together introduced me to so many unique smells, experiences, and spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger.
Like most kids, I was on a constant quest for cookies growing up. I often snuck cookies from the cookie jar, and got caught more than once taking a few too many. Helga, Linda, and I would begin making the holiday cookies in November to get a head start on the festivities, and also stretch out the season so we could enjoy it a bit longer. We started with traditional gingersnap dough, but my grandmother would add chopped candied citrus peel—the star of these cookies—for flavor and texture. The bitter notes from the orange peels and the fragrant spices in these cookies really shine during the holidays, but they are delicious any time of year and they keep well. But if your house is anything like mine, you won’t have many leftovers.
Today, my son Zion helps in the kitchen. He wears an apron and stands on a stool, much like I did with my grandmother. He loves the action and is captivated by the different smells as ingredients cook and change color. Our open kitchen doubles as a living room and Zion spends a lot of time with us there, in the hub of our home (which he sees as a playground!). Cooking with family across the generations has been an incredible gift and one that I hope Zion passes down to his own family one day. — Marcus Samuelsson
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Toast the ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
Sift the flour, toasted spices, baking soda, salt, and white pepper into a bowl or onto a sheet of wax paper.
In a large bowl, beat the butter and both sugars with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Beat in the molasses. Gradually beat in the flour mixture. Stir in the candied citrus peel.
Drop rounded tablespoons of the dough on the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cookies 2 inches (5cm) apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the tops feel firm when lightly touched. Cool on the baking sheets for about 2 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
For the candied citrus peel:
Put the citrus peels in a medium saucepan, cover with plenty of cold water, and bring to a boil; drain. Repeat two more times.
Combine 2 cups water (475ml) and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the citrus peels and bring just to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently for 30 to 45 minutes until the peels are translucent. Remove from the heat and let the peels cool in the syrup.
Drain and finely chop. Transfer to wire racks to dry.